Caesar’s Invasions of Britain: Celtic Perspective

“Of the inhabitants, those of Cantium (Kent), an entirely maritime district, are far the most advanced, and the type of civilization here prevalent differs little from that of Gaul. With most of the more inland tribes, the cultivation of corn disappears and a pastoral form of life succeeds, flesh and milk forming the principal diet, and skins of animals the dress. On the other hand, the Britons all agree in dying their bodies with woad, a substance that yields a bluish pigment, and in battle greatly increases the wildness of their look. Their hair is worn extremely long, and with the exception of the head and upper lip the entire body is shaved.” (Julius Caesar’s account of Britain)

Caesar’s Invasions of Britain: Celtic Perspective

Introduction

In researching Celtic history, I ran across an interesting book entitled, “History of the Kings of Britain,” that was written in Latin by Geoffrey of Monmouth in 1136 AD. This book traces the history of Britons through a sweep of nineteen hundred years stretching from the mythical Brutus, great-grandson of the Trojan Aeneas, to the last British King, Cadwallader. Geoffrey claims he translated his stories from ‘a certain very ancient book written in the British language’ that was given him by Walter the Archdeacon. Though his work has been sharply criticized for its historical inaccuracies, there are bits of truth that cannot be completely discounted.

Celtic Tribes in Britain

Celtic Tribes in Britain

Of particular interest is Geoffrey’s account of Caesar’s invasions of Britain and his battles with Cassivellaunus that is told from his patriotic British viewpoint. What rings true in his story is the fragility of the British rulers’ egos and their lust for power, a weakness that eventually plays into the hands of Claudius who invaded Britain in 43 AD. Previous posts which have summarized Caesar’s Invasions of Britain from his accounts are located in the archives under the categories: Julius Caesar and Roman Invasion of Britain

Below is a summary of Geoffrey’s version. One has to wonder if there are some truths from this version that put some of Caesar’s accounts into question.

Geoffrey’s Account of Caesar’s Invasions of Britain

Julius Caesar was fascinated with Britain as he had been told the Britons were founded by Brutus, a descendant of Aeneas who fled from the ruined city of Troy to Italy. Although the Romans descended from the same ancient Trojan stock as the Britons, he underestimated them believing it would be a simple matter of forcing them to pay tribute and to swear their perpetual obedience to Rome. Thus, Caesar dispatched a message to the British King Cassivellaunus with demands that he pay tribute.

Reading the message, Cassivellaunus became indignant and sent Caesar a written message refusing to accept the terms of slavery. He further says, “It is friendship which you should have asked of us, not slavery. For our part we are more used to making allies than to enduring the yoke of bondage…we shall fight for our liberty and for our kingdom.”

The moment Caesar read this letter he prepared his fleet to set sail to Britain.

Ancient Roman Ship Frieze

Roman Ship Image on Frieze

King Cassivellaunus—along with his brother Nennius, his nephew Androgeus (Duke of Trivovantum) and other nobles—marched down to meet Caesar after he landed and set-up his camp near the British Dover Cliffs. A fierce hand-to-hand battle ensued. In single combat, Caesar cut his sword into Nennius’ shield that he could not wrench out. Nennius, taking Caesar’s sword, raged up and down the battlefield killing everyone he met. The Britons pressed forward as a united front cutting the Roman forces into pieces. That night, Caesar reformed his ranks, boarded his ships and sailed back to Gaul in defeat.

Overview White Cliffs Britain

Dover Cliffs Kent Britain

Nennius succumbed to his wounds fifteen days after the battle and died. Cassivellaunus buried him with Caesar’s sword called Yellow Death, for no man who was struck by it escaped alive.

Celtic Sword

Celtic Sword and Scabbard

Two years later, Caesar prepared to cross the sea a second time to avenge Cassivellaunus for the humiliating defeat he had suffered at his hands. As soon as the King heard of this, he garrisoned villages everywhere and planted stakes shod with iron and lead below the water-line in the bed of the River Thames, up which Caesar would have to sail to attack Trivovantum.

Celtic Roundhouses on Hill Fort

Ancient Celtic Village on Hill Top

Cassivellaunus and every man of military age waited for Caesar to cruise up the Thames where his ships were ripped apart by the stakes. As a result, thousands of Romans drowned, but several survivors clambered with Caesar onto dry land. The King ordered his warriors to charge the remaining Romans. The Britons, outnumbering the Romans three to one, were victorious over their weakened enemy. Again, Caesar escaped to his remaining undamaged ships and sailed back to Gaul.

Celtic Horned Helmet

Celtic Horned Helmet Found at River Thames Date 150-50BC

Elated from his overwhelming victory, Cassivellaunus invited all his noblemen to a glorious feast where cows, sheep, fowl, and wild beasts in the hundreds were sacrificed as offerings to the gods. At the sporting events that night, the King’s nephew was beheaded by the nephew of Duke Androgeus in a dispute. Enraged, Cassivellaunus demanded that the Duke present his nephew in court for sentence. Androgeus refused.

Celtic Round House

Celtic Round House for Assembly

Enraged by the Duke’s refusal, Cassivellaunus ravaged his lands. In desperation, Androgeus dispatched a message to Caesar with a plea to help him restore his position. Only after the Duke sent his son, together with thirty young nobles as hostages, did Caesar depart for Britain a third time.

Ancient Roman Ship Replica

Model of Ancient Roman Ship

This time, Cassivellaunus was sacking Trinovantum when Caesar landed. Upon hearing the news of Caesar’s return, the King abandoned his siege and rushed to meet his Roman adversary. When the two sides met, they hurled deadly weapons at each other and exchanged mortal blows with their swords. In an unexpected move, Androgeus and his forces attacked the rear of the King’s battle line, forcing his warriors to give ground from the assaults on both sides.

Roman Legion

Roman Soldiers in Legion

The King took flight from the battlefield and retreated to a hill top. Caesar besieged the hill, but he still could not defeat the King. Even now, when driven off the battle-field, Cassivellaunus and his battered forces continued resisting a man whom the whole world could not withstand. Caesar resorted to cutting off all means for the King’s retreat and to starving them.

Maiden Castle Hill-Fort

Ramparts and Ditches Maiden Castle Hill-Fort

After two days without food, Cassivellaunus sent a message asking Androgeus to make peace for him with Caesar. When the envoys delivered the message to Androgeus, he said, “The leader who is as fierce as a lion in peace-time but as gentle as a lamb in time of war is not really worth much.” Nonetheless, he was moved by the King’s pleas and went to Caesar to plead mercy for the King. He told Caesar, “All that I promised you is this, that I would help you humble Cassivellaunus and conquer Britain. He is beaten, and, with my help, Britain is in your hands. Yet I cannot allow you to kill him while I myself remain alive.”

Celtic Carnyx War Horn

Celtic Carnyx Serpent War Horn

Ultimately, Caesar made peace with Cassivellaunus who, in turn, promised yearly tribute to Rome. The tale ends well as Caesar and Cassivellaunus become great friends and give each other gifts. Androgeus travels to Rome as a guest of Caesar.

Concluding Remarks

Certainly the above tale of Caesar’s Invasions of Britain differs from the Roman General’s account, but there are some similarities. Caesar wrote that, after Cassivellaunus brought down the King of the Trinovantes, his son Mandubracius fled to Gaul. He asked for Caesar’s help in regaining the Trinovantes kingdom. On Caesar’s second invasion of Britain in 54 BC, Cassivellaunus fiercely resisted the Romans, but he eventually surrendered after they devastated his territories and other rival kings sought peace with his enemy.

Celtic Greaves

Celtic Greaves

Though Caesar was proclaimed a hero by the Roman Senate for his accomplishments in Britain, it can be argued his expeditions were not successful as he did not complete the conquest. The scenario of British rulers fleeing to Rome and asking for help to regain their sovereignty from rival rulers repeats time and time again up to the final conquest by Emperor Claudius in 43 AD. At that time, the King of the Atrebates, Verica, asked for help from Claudius in regaining his territory from Caratacus, a chieftain from the Catuvellauni tribe.

Richborough Roman Fort Ruins

Richborough Roman Fort, Site of Roman Invasion Under Claudius

To be continued

The next posts will provide an overview of rival dynastic kings that came to power in Britain between the time period of Caesar’s invasion of Britain in 54 BC up to Claudius’ conquest in 43 AD.

References:

Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain, translated with an introduction by Lewis Thorpe; Penguin Books, New York; first published 1966.

Julius Caesar, The Conquest of Gaul, translated by Rev. F. P. Long and introduction by Cheryl Walker; Barnes  & Noble, Inc.,  New York; 2005.

Julius Caesar Impact on Ancient Britain

Of the inhabitants, those of Cantium (Kent), an entirely maritime district, are far the most advanced, and the type of civilization here prevalent differs little from that of Gaul—Julius Caesar

Introduction

In 1st Century, Celtic maritime networks were revitalized in the northern Atlantic region as a result of Roman commercial activities in southern Gaul (modern day France). Celtic social ties on both sides of the British channel were strengthened and new alliances were formed.

When Julius Caesar marched into free Gaul in 58 BC, these maritime networks were disrupted as he conquered Gaul and put the region under Roman control. His forays into Britain in 55-54 BC introduced the Britons to the reality of Roman power and the consequences of sending their warriors to aid fellow Celts in Gaul.

Roman Eagle Standard

Roman Eagle Standard

Caesar wrote, ‘no one goes there [Britain] except traders, and even they are acquainted only with the sea-coasts and the areas that are opposite of Gaul.’ Prior to his first excursion in 55 BC, Caesar summoned ‘traders from these parts’ for information of Britain, but they told him nothing of value. This would seem surprising given the extensive trade between Gaul and Britain. A likely explanation is these traders chose to be highly selective with the intelligence they shared. The Gallic traders warned the Britons of Caesar’s intention to land on their island. As a result, several of the British tribes send envoys offering hostages and allegiance to Caesar while he was in Gaul.

Side-by-side Comparison of Celtic and Roman Chariots

Celtic Chariot Comparison to Roman Chariot


Commius, King of the Atrebates

Caesar pursued the offers made by British envoys by sending Commius—a chief of the Atrebates in Gaul and confidant of the Romans—to persuade the Britons not to resist the Romans when they landed in 55 BC. However, Commius was immediately imprisoned by the Britons. He was later handed back as part of of Caesar’s peace settlement with the Celtic leaders on his first expedition. During Caesar’s second expedition to Britain in 54 BC, Commius negotiated the surrender of the British leader Cassivellaunus (see below). Commius remained loyal to Caesar through the Gaulish revolts of 54 BC, and Rome rewarded him by allowing the Atrebates tribe to remain independent and to be exempt from tax.

Diplomatic Gift to a Chieftain ruling in Southern Britain, possibly Commius of the Atrebates.

Diplomatic Gift to a Chieftain ruling in Southern Britain, possibly Commius of the Atrebates.

Although Commius was at first an ally of Rome, he switched sides to join the revolt in Gaul led by Vercingetorix in 52 BC. He later escaped to Britain to join his people who had already settled there. He established a powerful kingdom based at Calleva (modern day Silchester). By about 30 BC, Commius had established himself as king of the Atrebates in Britain and was issuing coins.

Statue of Vercingetorix

Statue of Vercingetorix

Lessons Learned Caesar’s First Expedition

Caesar’s first expedition to Britannia had limited success. The main lesson learned was the ocean and its massive tides and racing currents was a more formidable opponent than the Britons. Natural forces wreaked havoc on the Roman logistics and destroyed several ships. Even though the native Britons were fierce fighters, they were totally unused to facing the disciplined Roman army. The various tribes were politically fragmented and made Roman diplomacy to divide them an effective weapon.

Overview White Cliffs Britain

Dover Cliffs Near Julius Caesar’s Landing in Ancient Britain


Mandubracius, King of the Trinovantes

To take advantage of the fragmentation between the tribal kings, Caesar negotiated a deal with Mandubracius, the son of the king of the Trinovantes. He had fled to Gaul to put himself under Caesar’s protection after his father had been killed in a conflict with his neighbor—Cassivellaunus, the king of the Catuvellauni. According to Caesar, the Catuvellauni were in a continual state of war with the other tribes in the area.

Celtic Horned Helmet

Celtic Horned Helmet Found at River Thames Date 150-50BC

Caesar’s campaign in early July 54 BC was on a more massive scale. Five legions and 2,000 cavalry –some 27,000 men—were transported in over 800 vessels. The landing was unopposed. Mandubracius proved to be invaluable as a source of intelligence about the complexities of local politics and the principal centers of power in eastern Britain. He helped Caesar navigate through the terrain he would fight on. Armed with this information, Caesar made a rapid, though heavily opposed advance through Kent that let him to the Thames, which he crossed, probably near London.

Roman Cavalryman in Ancient Britain

Roman Cavalryman in Ancient Britain

Mandubracius was a political pawn that played to good effect for Caesar. The Trinovantes, whom Caesar describes as the strongest tribe in southeast Britain, sent a deputation to discuss terms for their surrender. In this agreement, Mandubracius was reinstated as the tribal king who Caesar promised to protect his sovereignty. In exchange, the Trinovantes surrendered to Caesar, sending forty hostages as an assurance of their good behavior and providing grain for the Roman army. The concession by the Trinovantes was the major turning point and other tribes quickly followed. In all likelihood the basic deal had already been negotiated during the winter, when Mandubracius was under Caesar’s protection in Gaul. Knowing that he could rely on the Trinovantes to come over to Rome would have emboldened Caesar to make his rapid advance into hostile territory across the Thames, dangerously far from his supply base.

Roman Wagon

Roman War Wagon Used in Ancient Britain


Cassivellaunus, King of the Catuvellauni

But the danger still existed for Caesar despite his settlement with the Trinovantes. His army made for Cassivellaunus’ oppidium (fortified town) of Verulamium in the vicinity of St. Albans. It was protected by forests and marshes, and a great number of men. Cassivellaunus sought the aid of four tribal kings in Kent to attack the Roman base and supply lines. The attack ultimately failed and there was little Cassivellaunus could do but negotiate for peace.

As it was late in the summer season, Caesar was eager to negotiate terms so he could return to Gaul. It was agreed the Catuvellanuni would pay an annual tribute to Rome and hand over hostages. Further, Cassivellaunus agreed to leave the Trinovantes in peace. With his primary aims achieved, Caesar returned to Gaul with a great many prisoners.

Ancient Ruins of Verulamium Wall near St. Albans

Ancient Ruins of Verulamium Wall near St. Albans

Julius Caesar Impact on Ancient Britain 

Roman Domination

Whether these two brief excursions into Britain could be judged a Roman success is debatable since we do not know what Caesar’s true aspirations were for this isle. It is likely he had grossly underestimated the perils of the Channel crossing and the ferocity of the British resistance. He embarked on these expeditions with considerable risk and was lucky to escape with his reputation unscathed. What he did show, even if it was at a price, was the ocean could be mastered and that the distant island was accessible. He also claimed that the first step was taken to bring Britain under Roman domination. As far as Rome was concerned, southeast Britain had been conquered and treaty relationships had been established with the most powerful tribes. Britons were now paying an annual tribute to the Roman state. Others would have to complete the conquest.

Roman and Celtic Shields Used in Ancient Britain

Roman and Celtic Shields Used in Ancient Britain

Tribal Patronage to Rome

The Britons form the southeast gained not only first-hand experience of Roman military might, but, more importantly, they learned how the Romans had politically divided the tribes. Before the Roman invasion, the Celtic tribes were engaged in local conflicts and struck-up up allegiances for mutual benefit. Now these tribal rulers had a far more powerful force enter the arena. To gain patronage from the Roman world could offer them real advantages.

Celtic Gold Torc

Celtic Gold Torc Worn by Celtic Leaders

The most important effect of Caesar on the British scene was to divide the southeastern tribes into pro- and anti-Roman groups. Those who had suffered defeat, i.e. the tribes on the north bank of the Thames and in Kent were forced to pay an annual tribute which sustained a festering hatred of Rome. Those who benefited, the Trinovantes and the Catuvellauni, were rewarded with political alliances and access to trade.

Peoples of Southern Britain According to Ptolemy's Map

Peoples of Southern Britain According to Ptolemy’s Map

Lucrative trading monopolies were negotiated, and the hostages—usually young men from elite families—could be educated in Roman ways. Those who remained abroad maintained filial links with their tribe, while those who chose to return would bring with them new knowledge and a network of contacts that could benefit all. The desire to travel and to explore the world was deeply embedded in the psyche of the Britons. Patronage to the Roman cities was expanded.

Celtic Child in Roma Ara Pacis Procession Nord Particolare

Celtic child in frieze of Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace)


To be continued

The tribes that Caesar encountered in his first incursion that are mentioned above became powerful tribal kingdoms, in part, due to favorable treaties negotiated with Rome and favorable trading treaties. The subsequent rulers of these powerful kingdoms will be discussed in upcoming posts.

References:

Barry Cunliffe, Britain Begins; Oxford University Press, 2013.

Graham Webster, The Roman Invasion of Britain, Reprinted 1999 by Routledge (Imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group), NY.

Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 2005.

 

Celtic Spirit Warrior

Caesar Second Invasion Britain

‘Cities and Thrones and Powers,
Stand in Time’s eye,
Almost as long as flowers,
Which daily die.
But, as new buds put forth
To glad new men,
Out of the spent and considered Earth
The Cities rise again’
–Rudyard Kipling


Introduction

This is Part 3 in the series of posts that support Julius Caesar’s invasions of Ancient Britain in 55-54 BC helped establish powerful tribal dynasties in Britain that were loyal to Rome. The subsequent political unrest between rival tribal rulers in 1st Century Britain provides the backdrop to the epic historical fantasy, APOLLO’S RAVEN, the first unpublished novel in a series about a Celtic warrior princess and the great-grandson of Marc Antony.

Below is a continuation of Caesar’s second expedition after he learns several of his ships had been wrecked in a storm after landing.

Ancient Roman Ship Frieze

Image of Roman Warship on Frieze


Caesar’s 2nd Invasion Britain

March to Thames

Caesar’s primary objective in the second invasion of Britain was to march to the Thames and from there to Essex so he could barter with agents from the Trivovantes tribe for the return of their young prince, Mandubracius. Similar to his first invasion, his most formidable enemy was the forces of the English Channel. Two days after landing, several of his ships were wrecked  in an overnight storm off the southeast coastline.

Julius Caesar Statue

Statue of Julius Caesar

When Caesar received the bad news about the catastrophic damage to the vessels, he had to abandon his speedy advance to the Thames so his troops could repair the ships. Working night and day for ten days, the Roman soldiers repaired the boats and dragged them high up the beach into a fortified encampment. The huge task of protecting the fleet required a defensive line of four to five miles. The loss of time cost Caesar a resounding conquest, as the Britons had time to forget their political differences and to ally under a supreme commander, Cassivellaunus—the  ruler of lands bounded by the north bank of the Thames River.

Ancient Roman Warship Model

Roman Warship Model

By now the Britons had seen enough of Caesar’s legions and their battle tactics to know they could not successfully fight them in open battle. Cassivellaunus resorted to guerrilla tactics to menace the Roman army as his Celtic warriors withdrew to dense woodlands north of the Thames. There they prepared to resist.

Celtic Horned Helmet

Celtic Horned Helmet Found at River Thames Date 150-50BC

Yet again, the Roman troops displayed their discipline and training by fording the river in neck-high water. Not willing to risk an open engagement with the enemy when they reached the other side of the river, Cassivellaunus disbanded most of his forces and kept only 4000 charioteers to harass the flanks and rear of advancing Romans. He must have been bitterly disappointed that his forces could not even hold the Thames.

Roman Legion

Soldiers in Roman Legion


Political Tribal Division

Caesar’s plunge into hostile territory that separated him from the main supply line might have seemed fool-hardy. That was not the case. The trump card was Mandubracius who turned out to be a valuable ally in negotiating with agents from the Trinovantes tribe. As previously discussed in the last post, Mandubracius had fled to Gaul requesting Caesar’s protection after his father had been killed in a conflict with his neighbor Cassivellaunus, the Catuvellauni king.

Celtic Sword

Celtic Sword and Scabbard

In exchange for Caesar’s recognition of Mandubracius as their rightful king, the Trinovantes supplied grain to the Roman troops and forty hostages to secure the agreement. Further, Mandubracius persuaded five other tribes that bordered the kingdom of Cassivellaunus to join him in submitting to Rome. Though very little is known about these other tribes, one was assumed to be the Iceni who were initially a political ally to Rome in the invasion by Emperor Claudius almost 90 years later in 43 AD. Ironically, in 61 AD, the charismatic Iceni warrior queen, Boudica, led an uprising that almost expelled the Roman expeditionary forces out of Britain.

Boudica Statue

Statue of Boudica

The political implications of these tribal defections to Caesar were dramatic. The tribal leaders informed him of the location of Cassivellaunus’ stronghold in the thick woodlands and marshes. The Roman legions promptly and efficiently attacked the resisting Britons that resulted in the slaughter of many of the people and confiscation of their cattle.

Celtic Village of Roundhouses

Ancient Celtic Village of Roundhouses


Final Surrender

In one last desperate attempt, Cassivellaunus ordered Kentish tribes along the coastline to attack the Roman naval encampment to cut off Caesar from Gaul. But the Romans were ready for this assault, and they subsequently inflicted several Kentish casualties and captured their tribal leaders.

Grassy Top Dover Cliffs

Dover White Cliffs in Kent, Southeast Britain

Cassivellaunus had little choice but to sue for peace, with Commius, the Atrebates king from Gaul who served as negotiator. Any plans that Caesar had for staying in Britain had to be abandoned when he learned of serious trouble in Gaul that demanded his attention. He collected several British hostages, levied an annual tribute on the hostile tribes, and ordered Cassivellaunus not to attack the Trivovantes or dispose of their king, Mandubracius.

Celtic Battersea Shield

Celtic Battersea Shield

Caesar’s decision to leave Britain seemed sudden because he waited in vain for additional ships from Gaul to ferry his army across the Channel. By the autumn equinox, he had to make two voyages with his repaired ship to transfer innumerable hostages, prisoners and Roman soldiers back to Gaul.

Conclusions

Ultimately, Caesar’s grand scheme of adding Britain to his lists of conquests failed due to the capricious weather and tides of the English Channel. Yet he ultimately vanquished Gaul and established treaties with power British leaders that directly impacted trading routes and internal politics on the island.

The next series of posts will piece together the rise of powerful tribal dynasties descended from Mandubracius, Cassivellaunus, and Commius in Britain that, in part, impacted Rome’s final decision to invade and conquer the island ninety years later in 43 AD.

Overview White Cliffs Britain

Dover Cliffs in Britain Near Landing Site of Julius Caesar

References:

Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, 2005. The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes & Noble, Inc.

John Peddie, Conquest: The Roman Invasion of Britain; Reprinted 1997 by St. Martin’s Press, New York.

Graham Webster, The Roman Invasion of Britain; Reprinted 1999 by Routledge, New York.

Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey; 3rd Edition Reprinted by Sheridan Books, Inc., Chelsea, Michigan

Caesar Second Invasion Britain

 

 THE STANDARD PATH of the mythological adventure of the hero is represented in the rites of passage: separation, initiation, and return—Joseph Campbell

 


Introduction

The unpublished epic historical fantasy [First Novel: APOLLO’S RAVEN] is envisioned to be a series set in Celtic Britain, Gaul (modern day France) and Ancient Rome prior to the invasion of Claudius in 43 AD. The first novel begins in 24 AD Celtic Britain (modern day Ken) when a Celtic warrior princess begins a perilous odyssey to help save her kingdom from rival rulers.

Historical and archaeological evidence supports the theory that Julius Caesar’s invasion in 55-54 BC helped establish Celtic dynasties in southeast Britain loyal to Rome. Political unrest of rival tribal rulers in 24 AD provides the backdrop to APOLLO’S RAVEN where the Celtic heroine first meets the great-grandson of Mark Anthony.

Collapse White Cliffs Wall Britain

Coastal White Cliffs Near Dover


Caesar Second Invasion Britain

Political Support

Although Caesar’s first expedition to Britain in 55 BC had limited success, the Romans were wildly enthusiastic he had conquered the ocean by invading the island. It would be similar to the excitement of landing on the moon in modern times. The Roman Senate voted twenty days of thanksgiving to celebrate his accomplishment. The political support paved the way for his second campaign in Britain the following year in 54 BC.

Based on his experience from the first expedition, Caesar’s second campaign launched in early July 54 BC was on a grander scale. It is not clear from Caesar’s accounts whether the purpose of the second invasion was to conquer Britain, punish hostile tribes, or open the British Isles to more lucrative Roman trade. The unfolding events in his accounts suggest the primary objective was to establish pro-Roman dynasties that would subsequently be rewarded with lucrative trade for their loyalty.

Julius Caesar Statue

Statue of Julius Caesar


Lessons Learned From First Invasion

Caesar documented what he learned from the first invasion that helped him effectively prepare for the second campaign. The primary lesson was the ocean, with its massive tides, racing currents, and variable winds, was a more formidable opponent that the Britons. These forces of nature wreaked havoc on Roman logistics. Further, he gained invaluable insight on the British fighting tactics, diverse populations, political complexities, and powerful rulers that helped him in the second invasion.

Chariot Battle Tactics

In the first expedition, Julius Caesar faced stiff resistance from fierce warriors that included approximately 4,000 chariot teams. His Roman Legion had not previously faced chariot fighting tactics. Although chariot racing was a popular past time in Rome, it was not used in Roman warfare.

Gallo-Roman Chariot Race Mosaic

Chariot Race Mosaic

Caesar describes chariot battle tactics as follows:

First, they drive in all directions hurling spears. Generally they succeed in throwing the ranks of their opponents into confusion just with the terror of the galloping horses and the din of the wheels. They make their way through the squadrons of their own cavalry, then jump down from their chariots and fight on foot. Meanwhile, the chariot drivers withdraw a little way from the fighting and position the chariots in such a way that if their masters are hard pressed by the enemy’s number, they have an easy means of retreat to their own lines. Thus, when they fight they have the mobility of cavalry and the staying power of infantry. And with daily training and practice they have become so efficient that even on steep slopes they can control their horses at full gallop, check and turn them in a moment, run along the pole, stand on the yoke, and get back into the chariot with incredible speed.

Celtic Horned Helmet

Celtic Horned Helmet Found at River Thames Date 150-50BC

Nonetheless, Caesar was able to overcome these obstacles with an established, well-disciplined army  against the more chaotic battle assaults by the various tribal leaders and their armies.

Roman Legion

Professional Roman Soldiers in Legion


Diverse Tribal Regions

Caesar describes the population along the southeast coast of Britain to be densely populated by Belgic immigrants of Germanic ancestry, who had crossed the channel from Gaul to plunder and eventually settle. The inhabitants of Cantium (modern day Kent), an entirely maritime district, were far more advanced than the inland tribes consisting of the original pastoral inhabitants who had their own traditions. Caesar’s first attack in Kent is not surprising given the long period of social relations between the peoples in Gaul and Britain. British war-leaders who had served in all Gallic wars against Romans were rewarded with gold coinage minted in Belgic Gaul.

Gold Coin of Suessiones

Gallo-Belgic Gold Coin

 

Coinage appeared as early as 125 BC in Britain. Early coins adopted the Greek design showed the head of Apollo and the horses and chariot on the reverse side. This design was eventually abstracted more in line with Celtic art. Low value bronze coins were minted in the Kent region to support the early first century development of their market economy. The bronze coins used by the Cantiaci tribe in this region were prototypes of those produced in Massilia (Marseille) that featured a charging bull. For the first time the British were exposed to writing in the form of Latin script. In the 70s and 60s BC other tribes in Britain followed the example of the Cantiaci and adopted coinage: the Atrebates in Hampshire/Berkshire and the Catuvellauni/Trivovantes north of the Thames.

There were major centers of population, the oppida (town), where traders assembled. Many of these tribal centers were built from fortified hill-forts. Structures in southeast Britain were set close together and included thatch-roof, round houses. Flocks of sheep and herds of cattle were plentiful. Interestingly, the Britons had a taboo against eating hares, fowls, and geese, which they kept as pets.

Celtic Village of Roundhouses

Ancient Celtic Village of Roundhouses

Powerful Tribes and Rulers

No doubt the preparation for the second invasion included political negotiations with powerful British leaders, one of whom was Mandubracius. He was a prince of the Trivovantes, a powerful tribe occupying the Essex region. Mandubracius fled to Gaul to put himself under Caesar’s protection after his father was killed in a conflict with his neighbor Cassivellaunus, the king of the Catuvellauni. According to Caesar, the Catuvellauni had been in continual state of war with other tribes in the area.

Celtic Shield British Museum

Celtic Shield La Tène Style

Mandubracius was an invaluable source of intelligence about the complexities of the local politics and the primary centers of power in eastern Britain. He also provided information about the terrain through which Caesar would fight. Armed with this information, Caesar’s strategy was clear. He  would move with lightning speed through Kent to the Thames where he would meet Cassivellaunus. Caesar also planned to use Mandubracius as a political pawn to negotiate the prince’s reinstatement as ruler of the Trivovantes.

Redesign of Ships to Counter Tidal Changes

Due to the frequent tidal changes that Caesar encountered in his first expedition, he ordered his generals to construct smaller transports with shallower drafts for easier loading and beaching. The vessel’s beam was built wider to carry heavy cargoes, including large numbers of horses and mules. As a result of the redesign, the ships were difficult to maneuver and thus were equally fitted for rowing and sailing.

Ancient Roman Warship Model

Roman Warship Model


Landing Without Opposition

At sunset on July 6th, Caesar embarked from Portis Itius (modern day Wissant France) to Britain with a fleet of 800 ships that transported five legions (25,000 soldiers) and 2,000 cavalry. The tide turned the following morning and took the ships with it. As a result, the soldiers had to row the ungainly vessels without stop to reach the Kent coast (near Deal) by mid-day. Unlike the first expedition, there were no signs of enemy to oppose the landing. Caesar learned later the tribal forces had been dismayed to see the vast flotilla in the English Channel and thus decided to seek a stronger position inland to fight.

Without any opposition, Caesar’s ships anchored and a site was chosen for camp.

Pebble Beach Deal UK

Landing Site for Julius Caesar’s Flotilla (Deal UK)

Initial Conflict

With typical audacity, Caesar immediately marched his legions 12 miles inland in early morning darkness the next day to the River Stour near Canterbury. Shocked at the sudden appearance of the Roman army, Britons fell back to a formidable position in the woods which Caesar described as being fortified by immense natural and artificial strength. The hill-fort was strongly guarded by felled trees that were packed together. Possibly this site was initially built for tribal wars. The Roman soldiers locked their shields above their heads to form a testudo (tortoise) to protect themselves from missiles while they hacked their way into the fortress and drove the British forces into the woods. Further pursuit was forbidden by Caesar as the countryside was unfamiliar. He needed sufficient time to entrench his camp.

Hillside Coastal White Cliffs Britain

Coastal White Cliffs Britain


Storm’s Wrath

The following morning, the Roman pursuit of the British fugitives began in earnest. Again Caesar underestimated the powerful forces of the English Channel. A terrible storm along the coast tore the ships from their moorings and drove them ashore. When Caesar received the bad news about the shipwrecks, he abandoned his speedy advance which would have desolated the Britons He returned his army to repair the damages to his vessels.

Ancient Roman Ship Frieze

Roman Ship Image on Frieze

 

(To be continued)

References:

Barry Cunliffe, Britain Begins; Reprinted 2013; Oxford University Press, United Kingdom

Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, 2005. The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes  & Noble, Inc.

Graham Webster, The Roman Invasion of Britain; Reprinted 1999 by Routledge, New York.

Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces; 3rd Edition Reprinted by New World Library, Novato, CA.